Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Disappearance is usually felt as something bad. When things disappear, we sense the pull of death, the call of the dust, the loss of the palpable good. I have recently been moving house after many years in one place, with all its accumulations. Things, often intimate things, are left behind, given away, sent to the trash, a landfill that sometimes feels like the biblical valley from which the smoke of smoldering fires rises, and in which the worm turns. Regret wells up. Christians are encouraged to use this regret for self-knowledge: Life is transient, memento mori, read your Ecclesiastes and ponder heavenly things.

All this is surely right. But I wonder if disappearance can be more than sorrow or sorrow’s purgative tool. Disappearing things, disappearing people, the very reality of something that was but no longer is: Perhaps this can act as something positive, a very encounter with God.

I heard a famous paleontologist comment on how “sad” it is that so many living things disappeared from the earth in the Late Devonian extinction more than 300 million years ago. Seventy percent of living species vanished; no one knows why. This was one of several great pre-dinosaur extinctions. Others followed. It is “sad” that we shall never see, know, touch, or smell the occupants of a profligately exuberant biosphere now gone. Perhaps the generations following Noah, having heard the story, also felt sad. At best there remains a faint echo in the soil, the fading tracery of a vast unknown tract of reality that once was. The paleontologist’s comment implied there was no agent overseeing this outstretched series of extinct phenomena, no providential hand able to make things worse or better, let alone hold them together. Only human sadness presides, a seeming self-moving force, impotent in its regrets. Unless, that is, one believes in God as the Creator of all that is and has been. Then everything becomes complicated, but also strangely hopeful.

Complicated: Annihilation became a theological problem in early modernity, picking up concerns from the antique world of Epicureans and Stoics. Theologians such as Calvin and Luther had long worried about the nature of the soul after death, but then came shocking debates about the final fate of the wicked. Philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and a host of others favored the complete and utter disappearance of the reprobate. In our day, “annihilationist” views of the fate of the wicked have spread beyond the liberal sphere to evangelicals. (Even John Stott tentatively approved.) For those sticking with scriptural texts that clearly speak to the eternal torment of evildoers, the withdrawal of being (annihilation) seems to satisfy the conflicted heart of those who would both see evil destroyed and God do so without sadistic exhilaration.

The driving issue in modern debates over whether things can disappear “absolutely” has revolved around the divine justice of everlasting torment in hell. If a good God needs to punish the wicked—not everyone agrees about this anymore, though many Christians still do—it would be better for him to destroy them utterly, to “annihilate” them, than to condemn them to eternal pain. Voltaire is a good example of conflicting intuitions in this debate. In the end, he opted against annihilation in favor of a theistic universalism: God will make all things, and people, good. Voltaire’s convictions gained steam among Christians in subsequent centuries. 

But Christianity is itself fading, along with Voltaire’s vague, benevolent theism. Probably more widespread today is the Epicurean drift of the paleontologist: a godless and disappearing cosmos, where our lives are small blips on a screen of otherwise indistinct and untextured blankness.

Still, the agony of loss—of moving house or of epochal dissolutions—persists. To lose something that once was! So, we might wonder, do the saved in heaven remember those among the lost, even those who, as annihilationists believe, no longer are? The unbelieving parent, the reprobate child—are they vanished from the minds of the elect? Or are the memories of the redeemed cleansed, such that, as the tears are wiped from their eyes, so, too, is the aching imprint of every love’s disappearance erased? Whatever the creature’s link to the lost may be, surely God must know, and always know, what he once made and then unmade. The medieval theologian John Wycliffe used this assertion to deny annihilation of anything created. God cannot erase his own “ideas,” from which all that is created arises in the first place. Which is to say, God can never “forget completely.” Or can he? If not actual annihilation—gone without a trace—perhaps God remembers to forget, or forgets to remember. “I will remember their sins no more,” he assures Israel (Jer. 31:34). What a cauldron!

Hopeful: What a treasury! There is a bottomless fund of coming and going in God’s imagination, as it were. To swim within it is to encounter the very depths of the waters from which he formed the world. Is not fecundity implied by disappearance? If creation is ex nihilo, then the nihil that creeps around God’s making of things—God’s immensely rich “nothing”—is somehow creative itself. The nothingness out of which the creature arises is bound up with the doing of God. In its own way, the empty darkness of nonbeing is brilliant, flashing. Disappearance throbs with energy. 

Barth’s das Nichtige is one of the Swiss theologian’s most disputed concepts. Just translating the word is hard: “Void”? “Nothingness”? “Futility”? The term was meant, somehow, to point to this paradox of the fruitful, disclosing void. Barth attempted to limit the discussion of evil to its exclusive overcoming in Christ. The very notion of something contrary to God’s creative agency, he argued, has no independent metaphysical substance and emerges only because of Christ’s victory over it. We can speak of “evil” only as a shadow of God’s triumph. Barth’s approach was supposed to keep prying minds from speculating overmuch, directing them toward God’s positive work. As Charles Venn Pilcher’s hymn “King of Love” puts it: “King of mercy, thou hast saved us from the haunting sense of loss.” No longer “haunting,” we “sense” loss simply because of God’s removal of its burden. Our aching emptiness forms the foil for Jesus’s great redemption.

This could be taken grimly, I realize. A “trail of nothingness” hovers about the hem of God’s passage through the world of things. It is as if God’s work must necessarily carry a dark side to it, a train of sorrow that follows creation. (Ivan Illich may have entertained this thought with his view of the “anti-Christ” as the Savior’s fellow traveler across time.) Every “thing” involves its own seeping away of substance. The ex nihilo haunts the finitude at the heart of our being that, almost despite God, amplifies the echoes of our hollowness.

But disappearance is not absolute nothingness. It always carries with it a trace of being, for what has disappeared once was. That is why I think that, in a deep sense, Wycliffe was right: Annihilation makes no sense. All that is and then disappears evokes a sense not only of loss, but also of astonishment that there is something at all—that it is in God’s power to make and unmake. The coming and going of the world is ever God’s, and it springs from the depths of his creative goodness. It is thus ever comprehended by his holy and loving being, however mysterious. 

This view of God’s hand in all things is not really a theodicy, because it cannot pacify felt regrets, even intellectually. That’s just as well. The philosopher Bernard Williams wrote a celebrated essay on the “tedium of immortality”: an afterlife where everything is balanced out, smoothed over, and hums along happily. Williams’s essay is full of jejune sarcasm, but nonetheless points to a truth. Unresolved theodicies that acknowledge uncertain redemptions and terrifying torments are richer, thicker, more fascinating, and scintillating. Hence, movies about heaven never work. By contrast, Jurassic Park is no masterpiece, but it still takes us into the dream world of Devonian-like disappearance with all the vigor of the looming forces of dissolution that really do stand beside, beyond, and within our actual lives. But let these realities hang upon the creative grace of God.

Let us consider our lives as given out of nothing—and taken from us without regard to our projects and petitions. Within this strange confection lies the untamable reality of our Maker. Hence, I am not an annihilationist. Rather, I am a disappearantist. I believe that we should fear God’s judgment profoundly and seek God’s life with our whole being. As we do so, let us tremble with the mixture of joy and unraveling astonishment before the God who has let being be, and who will order being according to his exhaustive creative reach, which extends even to the fleshly form of the one who said, “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father” (John 16:16). Jesus’s departure, his disappearance, is revelatory. It shows us the way: “Let us go hence” (John 14:31). 

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by Wikimedia Commons on Creazilla, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines